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Homelessness has been around forever but often looked over as something that isn’t a big deal, but why is the public just now becoming more informed in recent years? Looked at in great depth within homelessness in America, the focus is on individual adults. Among people experiencing homelessness in our country, society knows that most are individual adults without children, including unaccompanied youth or people in multiple-adult or multiple-child households. They include a single woman living out of her car because she has a job in your city but can’t afford an apartment. Or a couple cycling between motels and shelters who were recently evicted because their medical bills were so high they could no longer make rent. Or a woman staying in a domestic violence shelter after fleeing human trafficking. The homeless population consists of all ages but specifically teens and adults, which is also based on their location.
Compared to other groups who experience homelessness, there is relatively little research or data about the large group of individual adults who are not people with disabilities experiencing chronic homelessness. On a single night in 2018, more than 372,000 individuals were estimated to be experiencing homelessness, representing 67% of the total estimated number of people. And between 2016 and 2018, the increase in overall homelessness can be entirely attributed to an increase in the number of unsheltered individuals. People of color, specifically Blacks and Native Americans, are much more likely to experience homelessness than those who are white, but also with efforts to eliminate those stark disparities. With housing costs rising at a more rapid pace than incomes, it’s essential to act to ensure that households aren’t pushed into homelessness. Homelessness is less likely to occur when existing affordable housing is preserved, and new units are built, especially when units are affordable and available to people at the lower income levels and with other barriers to housing stability.
Making homelessness rare also requires becoming more effective at targeting prevention services to households, including individual adults, that are identified as most likely to become homeless. Through rent assistance, legal help, and other services, individuals can be supported in their own homes. And for those who are knocking at the door of our homelessness services systems, diversion away from streets and shelters to other options and opportunities can be very effective. With the right mix of early services and limited financial supports, many individuals can avoid the traumatic experience of homelessness altogether. Many of you find your homelessness services systems increasingly bottlenecked due to the scarcity of decent housing at a cost that is affordable to the people you are serving. To counteract this effect, we must act now to bring affordable housing up to scale.
And within the housing options, we must provide for the right mix of permanent housing to meet people’s needs and provide choice. THe community also needs to ensure that emergency shelters are low barrier and housing-focused to meet the immediate needs of people living unsheltered and in encampments. The community knows that the longer people live outside or cycle through shelters, the more at risk they are to develop chronic health conditions. The work to end individual adult homelessness helps prevent people from aging into chronic homelessness. This requires connections to adequate services and opportunities like engaging, person-centered case management, on-the-job training, supported employment and other employment and career pathways, behavioral health services, high-quality education, and quality health care services (to name just a handful).
A few short months ago, Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, was giving serious consideration to running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now he finds himself in the midst of a homelessness crisis that could doom his political future.
If you were to conjure up the ideal California politician, you could do worse than Garcetti, a Jewish Mexican American Rhodes Scholar with a gift for gab, in English and Spanish, and a winningly simple style. As if channeling a young Barack Obama, the mayor is fond of invoking storied moments from the American past—the Great Depression, the Second World War, the civil-rights movement—to suggest that if previous generations were able to turn daunting challenges into historic accomplishments, then we ought to hold ourselves to the same exacting standards, a welcome alternative to the sourness and fatalism of other politicians on the left and right. But when it comes to Los Angeles’s long-running battle with homelessness, the mayor’s rhetoric looks more delusional than inspirational.
A month after Garcetti delivered his rousing State of the City address, California released its annual homelessness count, revealing that after an encouraging 4 percent drop from 2017 to 2018, Los Angeles’s homeless population grew by 16 percent in 2019, bringing post-2011 growth up to 52 percent. These numbers would be alarming in any city, but in Los Angeles they are especially so, because the city is the focal point of a particularly brutal style of homelessness. Seventy-five percent of the city’s homeless population is unsheltered, typhus and typhoid threaten to create a public-health emergency, and a growing number of homeless people are either the perpetrators or the victims of violent crime
The mayor’s response has been to increase public spending on homelessness sharply, but he’s had frustratingly little to show for it. When the homelessness issue burst onto front pages a few years ago, Garcetti jumped into action with an ambitious plan to build emergency shelters in all 15 districts of the city. But as the mayor soon discovered, the issue with an “emergency” plan oriented around construction is that Los Angeles is a far cry from Bob Moses’s New York. Eighty percent of the shelters have been held up by red tape and community resistance.
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